Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Sentinel Telescope is the Ultimate in Environmental Protection

SPACEnews :: Conservation of our environment is important. It is all we have, because beyond our planet is the void of space. Surely we'll be able to hedge our precarious predicament one day by  bringing this environment in part to Mars and building massive habitats in orbit around the Earth, the sun, and beyond. But until then, we must preserve what we have in an intelligent way, or we'll have nothing left to bring with us.

NewSpace 2012: Dr. Ed Lu of the B612 Foundation. A big thanks to SpaceVidCast for making this, and many other NewSpace talks available.

People all agree on this generally, but find themselves arguing about the particulars. Meanwhile, there is a very real risk lurking just beyond the daily debates, threatening to take our most ambitious efforts and pulverizing them. It is a threat every school kid studying dinosaurs quickly understands when wondering, "where did the dinosaurs go?"

It is believed that the massive impact of an asteroid played a leading role in wiping out the dinosaurs. Despite their size and impressive evolutionary adaptations, there was nothing the dinosaurs could do to survive their unfortunate extraterrestrial intervention.

Human beings on the other hand possess the means of understanding the threat of asteroids and other near-Earth objects (NEO's), and the methods of protecting against them. It is the absolute ultimate in "environmental protection."

Strangely enough, while there are people diligently working on protecting the planet against this threat, it would seem we would be a little more serious about something that could, conceivably overnight, cause more devastation than any combination of disasters the Earth, including the people on it, could conjure up on our own.

Currently, there are telescopes that search out NEO's, with professionals and amateurs feeding discoveries of potential risks to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge Massachusetts where orbit calculations are done, before NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Campo Imperatore Near Earth Object Survey (CINEOS) in Italy work out impact threat calculations.

Discoveries are made, and fears allayed. But now, a group of scientists/astronauts/entrepreneurs are looking to get serious about asteroid detection and early warning of potential risks with a mission that will survey more asteroids in 5 years than all previous surveys and observations combined.

The B612 Foundation's Sentinel Mission features a 25 foot (7,700mm) tall, 1,600 pound (725kg) infrared telescope destined for an interior orbit of Earth's, flying around the sun and looking away from its blinding (infrared) light, across Earth's orbital path. As it looks, it will find the sun-heated surfaces of asteroids in and around Earth's orbit. (Download the official Sentinel Date Sheet here)

Watching the road. You can clearly see in this B612/Ball Aerospace illustration, that the Sentinel will fly on an orbit inside Earth's, looking outward from the sun, and across the Earth's orbit. It will also receive a gravity assist from Venus (also pictured).

Built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation and based on the Kepler telescope design (also built by Ball Aerospace), it requires no cryogenics to keep cool its infrared sensors in relation to the asteroids it will be hunting. It will have large thermal shields to do the cooling other infrared devices require cryogenics for.

To get an idea of the B612 Sentinel Telescope's size, I've constructed a SketchUp model of it (shown above in .gif format rotating) with a human figure for size comparison. It's slated to launch in 2017 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 and plans on carrying out its mission for 5 and a half years.

The B612 Foundation is working to raise the funds for the project, has an impressive team behind it, and is already attracting investors and philanthropists seeking to get the Sentinel Telescope off the ground. To see how you can help, visit B612 Foundation's website here. Or, just spread the word.